I am reading Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King (1959) in part because it showed up on a table at work where my colleagues – a literate bunch – drop off books they no longer want.
I am reading Henderson the Rain King as well because it had shown up on a list of titles from my sophomore year in high school. It had been a list made up just for me. The compiler was a young teacher in his twenties for whose English class I had particularly enjoyed reading A Separate Peace (1959) by John Knowles. Full of questions about life and God, I had asked to speak with this teacher one day after school. Some recommendations for my reading followed. The only other title on the list that I recall is Atheism in Our Time (1965) by Ignace Lepp.
The man who compiled that list is about to retire.
Confession time: I did not read everything on the list. I am fifty-nine years old, and I am only now reading Henderson the Rain King. Not that I didn’t try to read it back in 1967. Henderson the Rain King was no Separate Peace, however. Forty-four years later, I read it – and read it with pleasure – but perfectly understand that Bellow was no easy assignment for that younger reader in love with the friendships at Devon School.
“I went back to the Devon School not long ago...”
The New England prep school setting that John Knowles had begun to create with that opening line of A Separate Peace is not too different from the setting to which my sophomore English teacher eventually moved for a forty-year career. Reading the brief biography that his school linked to an announcement of his retirement, I can locate the years he taught me in New Orleans. I watch the accompanying slide show and smile at the earliest photographs of him. An elegant man now in the signature bowtie of his professional maturity, he wears a turtleneck and sport coat in a black-and-white picture from the initial years of his employment.
I recall the pages of poems with which he used to supplement the bound texts for our English course. Across some of the ditto masters with their carefully typed verses he would slash random lines with his pen, arcs of enthusiasm to startle his students into spontaneity and fresh reading energy. His in-class recitations could approach a yawp if he suspected my classmates and I were unnecessarily passive or complacent.
I heard my teacher’s voice last night as I read one passage by Bellow. It is American millionaire Henderson speaking here to an Arnewi prince in the deep solitudes of the African continent:
“I know,” I said, “superficially I don’t look sick. And it sounds monstrous that anybody with my appearance should still care about himself, his health or anything else. But that’s how it is. Oh, it’s miserable to be human. You get queer diseases. Just because you’re human and for no other reason. Before you know it, as the years go by, you’re just like other people you have seen, with all those peculiar human ailments. Just another vehicle for temper and vanity and rashness and all the rest. Who wants it? Who needs it? These things occupy the place where a man’s soul should be.”
I can understand now why my teacher would have thought this just the book for a young man grappling with questions about life and God.
For a time as an adult, I followed him into the English classroom – a career choice on my part that kept me close to writing and reading. One day in the early 1980s, I went to visit him unexpectedly at his school; the National Council of Teachers of English was holding its annual conference nearby. I found him in his office discussing an essay with a student.
How much younger we both were then, my former teacher and I. What must we have looked like, though, to the young man whose writing was under the spotlight?
I want to think that in "the place where a man’s soul should be" that student now has what he needs – thanks in part to a remarkable teacher he and I both had.
And what list of books did he get the next day?